Music heals the heart, and soothes the soul

Pavia, Italy — One day, doctors might prescribe a dose of Debussy for high blood pressure, rather than reaching for the pills, thanks to a study by Italian researchers.

Researchers have discovered that blood flow and respiratory rates can synch with music, and that swelling crescendos – increases in volume – appear to induce moderate arousal while decrescendos induce relaxation.

“Music induces a continuous, dynamic — and to some extent predictable — change in the cardiovascular system,” said Luciano Bernardi, lead researcher and professor of Internal Medicine at Pavia University. “It is not only the emotion that creates the cardiovascular changes, but this study suggests that also the opposite might be possible, that cardiovascular changes may be the substrate for emotions, likely in a bi-directional way.”

Researchers studied 12 experienced singers and 12 participants  who had no previous musical training. They were fitted with headphones and were attached to an ECG and monitors to measure blood pressure, cerebral artery flow, respiration and narrowing of blood vessels on the skin. Five random tracks of classical music were played, as well as two minutes of silence.

Researchers found that every crescendo led to increased narrowing of blood vessels under the skin, increased blood pressure and heart rate and increased respiration amplitude. In each music track the extent of the effect was proportional to the change in music profile.

During the silent pause, changes decreased, with blood vessels under the skin dilating and marked reductions in heart rate and blood pressure. Unlike music, silence reduced heart rate and other variables, indicating relaxation.

Previous studies have shown that music reduces stress, boosts athletic performance and enhances motor skills of people with neurological impairments. “What we are learning from the present and previous study is that alternating between fast and slow music may be potentially more effective,” Bernardi said.

Among the study’s limitations, there were only 24 subjects, all of whom were similar in age, education and ethnicity. Different responses might have come from older subjects, or subjects accustomed to different styles of music, said researchers.

The study is published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.